Diet Coke and a Game of Chess: The Radical Work of Eve Babitz and Joan Didion

December 28, 2021   •   By Nikki Darling

“Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.”

 

— Joan Didion

 

“The past is entered through creaking iron gates laced with fog.”

 

— Eve Babitz

 

We who love Joan Didion each have our own, a version that, when we think of her, glides smoothly through the recesses of our minds just as the Monorail circles Disneyland. Most likely this version also includes an image of ourselves, who we were, where we were, when she first imprinted herself on our consciousness, our subconscious — when she changed how we see, and, if we write, undoubtedly and most distinctly how we do that as well. Always she returns, circling.

 

I’m 24, riding the L train from Lorimer St. in Brooklyn to Union Square in the city, where I’m a junior at Eugene Lang, having transferred from Pasadena City College in Los Angeles, where I’m from. I turn pages reverently, gingerly: Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The book has been assigned in my intro to nonfiction class. I stand rocking between the heels and balls of my feet, pulling a slim green peacoat around my small frame, leaning, looking into the darkened tunnel, waiting for train lights to bloom out of the darkness and whoosh to a stop before us, the doors opening onto a florescent city. Eager to sit and read again: “a coronet of seed pearls held her illusion veil.”

 

I saw Eve Babitz before I ever laid eyes on her writing. A high school classmate was the daughter of photographer Julian Wasser. I was hanging out at the long defunct Penny Lane on Melrose, it was the late ’90s, and the street had become slightly more famous, caught up in the glitz of the television show but still holding on to its punk grunginess. In the middle of the store stood the rotating postcard rack. I stood before it and from a sea of James Dean, Drew Barrymore, Salvador Dalí, and Edward Scissorhands emerged Eve, hunched forward, breasts voluminous, hair shrouding her face, playing chess with the then unknown to me Marcel Duchamp. I plucked her from the display. “Alexi’s dad took that,” a friend said casually. “What?” I asked. “Yeah, like, a bunch of years ago. It’s some writer and a famous artist.” I returned the card to its place but never forgot the image. This was the most Babitz way to have first encountered Eve Babitz, through gossip and a tenuous connection to celebrity.

 

The Stingray, the scarf, the glasses. Bobbed beach hair parted loosely down the middle. Didion was a master of persona. She gave modern women possession over car culture, so that they were no longer just objects in it. Freeways were that culture’s veins and escape routes, but where? The beauty and irony in Didion’s work was that she made Southern California such a delicious velvet coffin that most of her characters had nowhere better to go. In many ways she herself appeared to be without needs, happy only to observe. She hardly seemed to need food, as evidenced by the many profilers who delighted in describing her diet: almonds, a single ice-cold diet coke, cigarettes, slicing edges off slim cucumber sandwiches, sipping, flicking. As Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times in 1979,

 

Wearing a faded blue sweatshirt over brown corduroy levis, Didion at 44 strikes anyone who sees her for the first time as the embodiment of the women in her novels: like Lily McClellan in Run River, she is “strikingly frail” (Didion is 5 feet 2, and weighs 95 pounds); like Maria in Play It as It Lays, she used to chain-smoke and wear chiffon scarves over her red hair; and like Charlotte in A Book of Common Prayer, she possesses “an extreme and volatile thinness … she was a woman … with a body that masqueraded as that of a young girl.

 

Joan was cool to the touch and helped paint a picture of a new Californian, the woman girl or girl woman who was more interested in standing in the corner at a party than in the center of it. Before her eyes, swingers, rockstars, drunk struggling and non-struggling actors soaked up 1960s and ’70s reverie, while just outside the tall, wide glass windows, coyotes stalked the Hollywood Hills, traipsing through Beachwood Canyon as lights blossomed below. Bret Easton Ellis pays homage to the same coyotes in Less Than Zero, a book that borrowed heavily from Play It as It Lays — detachment, malaise, the time we spend driving L.A.’s wonderland of on-ramps and off-ramps, back alleys and city streets, afraid, apparently, to merge.

 

Like so many, myself included, Ellis tried to capture and emulate the mysterious drama of Didion’s prose, sun bleached, languorous yet taut. How can one write about L.A. without veering into her territory? She knew L.A. like the back of her hand. Not satisfied with Bukowski’s one-trick-pony show of low-lifes, Didion moved through Los Angeles seeking the complete picture, from Malibu to the Ralphs in Hollywood.

 

Each piece of Joan’s writing was in service of a larger narrative, this story of the United States, often using California as microcosm for our American ailments. She looked through and under L.A.’s facades, revealing the forces that shaped them:

 

Outside the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica a hard subtropical rain had been falling for days. It scaled still more paint from the faded hotels and rooming houses that front the Pacific along Ocean Avenue. It streamed down the blank windows of unleased offices, loosened the soft coastal cliffs and heightened the most characteristic Santa Monica affect, that air of dispirited abandon which suggests that the place survives only as an illustration of a boom gone bankrupt, evidence of some irreversible flaw in the laissez-faire small business ethic.

 

That she included women as prominent figures in this narrative, made her writing all the more meaningful, radical.

 

Babitz was a child of Los Angeles, born to a film composer father and a painter mother. She wrote in a tone that in many ways was the opposite of Didion’s, even though they shared a love of Los Angeles. If Joan was in the corner smoking and observing, Eve was in the mix, laughing loudly, flirtatiously, but always with a sense of ownership. There is joy and levity in Babitz’s writing. She makes you feel like her newest best friend. Despite her insider status she refuses to be a snob, and her openness about the pageantry of Angeleno society is one of her most endearing qualities. She hits the ground running on the first page of Slow Days, Fast Company:

 

This is a love story and I apologize; it was inadvertent. But I want it clearly understood from the start that I don’t expect it to turn out well. I’m not going to give you an “although I am wry and world-weary, me and Sam have found the answer together which only we share and you can’t come in except to press your nose against this book.” It’s bad luck for one thing. I know this lady who just made a fortune writing about her uplifting redemption, practically, from Falling In Love, and while she was on tour promoting the paperback the light of her heart ran into the night and disappeared off the face of the earth. Besides its being bad luck to even whisper that you’re happy, it’s also not nice basically.

 

I discovered Babitz’s writing after I’d aged out of her character’s demographic and was taken back immediately to my early 20s, before moving to New York, when I was still a drug-snorting hottie, hanging off bar stools. In those twilight years after high school and before a DUI that forced me to get serious about my future, life was a kaleidoscope of ascending hillsides viewed from jalopies into which my friends and I were stuffed like sardines, dressed in a feathery color wheel of thrift store clothes I’d stolen from my job as the manager at the Buffalo Exchange on La Brea. Stumbling into crowded kitchens in search of cigarettes, booze, and warm bodies; shouting into cell phones the size of dildos at the end of the night to see if a friend was going to wake up next to a future member of Maroon 5 or was puking in a bush nearby and needed assistance getting back to the car.

 

Babitz had done it all, predicted it all. She makes you her uninvited plus one. She introduces you to her many lovers, opens her lingerie drawer and says, don’t worry, only ignorant people think sex is taboo. I once wrote a short story about the artist Ana Mendieta that in many ways was influenced by Babitz’s insider voice, in which I announced that having big tits at 13 was like getting a chainsaw for Christmas and being asked to carry it around in a bra: I had power but no idea how to turn it on. Babitz understood and utilized this power, as in the famous photograph of her and Duchamp. She understood that women had been reduced to objects and that their bodies were deemed consumables, like products at Ralphs, and yet she did not allow shame or fear to be deciding factors in her life. Instead she openly embraced her sexuality, leaning hard into her era’s bohemian ethos. The L.A. women in her books defied classification.

 

Didion, too, had a knack for attracting the most fascinating and happening people into her orbit. Harrison Ford, still a carpenter, arrives at her home in Malibu to do renovations, stays three months, then explodes into a galaxy far, far away. In Slouching, Joan stumbles upon Sarah, a small child on Haight Street who’s just dropped acid, licking her white-lip-sticked lips and turning pages in a children’s book. In a telling scene in her nephew Griffin Dunne’s documentary The Center Will Not Hold, he asks Joan what it was like to stumble upon a child on acid. After some thought, replies, “It was gold.” Even Joan’s metaphors mine the depths of Californian consciousness.

 

Didion was a pure Californian, a fifth-generation descendent of manifest destiny. She wrote herself into the fabric of her larger California narrative. Even when she wasn’t on the page, her persona loomed over it. When she was present, she was honest about her failings to compartmentalize, realizing that what she had created was in some ways a monster. From Where I Was From:

 

I began trying to find the “point” of California, to locate some message in its history. I picked up a book of revisionist studies on the subject, but abandoned it on discovering that I was myself quoted, twice. You will have realized perhaps by now (a good deal earlier than I myself realized) that this book represents an exploration into my own confusions about place and the way in which I grew up, confusion and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely.

 

Although Babitz stayed mostly within the confines of L.A. County, her pages were full of striking insight. In Eve’s Hollywood, she announces:

 

Culturally, L.A. has always been a humid jungle alive with seething L.A. projects that I guess people from other places just can’t see. It takes a certain kind of innocence to like L.A., anyway. It requires a certain plain happiness inside to be happy in L.A., to choose it and be happy here. When people are not happy, they fight against L.A. and say it’s a “wasteland.”

 

Despite almost unanimous critical acclaim there is the notion that what Babitz did was more akin to unadorned autobiography than fiction, which negates her very real and profound talent as an imaginative author. She had a gift for uncovering the secret desire for Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood, within its fiercest critics, despite their continual denouncement of the place as culture-less. In fact, she illustrated that Los Angeles was a continuous center of culture, one that had more pull then the Woody Allens of the world were willing to admit. Just as men wanted Babitz, the snobs wanted Hollywood, and she wasn’t going to let them forget it.

 

In 2018, I was finishing edits on my novel Fade Into You, and it was time to accumulate blurbs. My editor asked if I’d put together a “wish list” of authors. Eve Babitz was first on my list. She had opened a space for unabashed smart girls to exhibit their cleverness without putting on airs. As a fellow Angeleno and former wild child, my affinity for her was beyond measure. After long awaiting a response to our inquiry, her publicist informed us that Eve was no longer doing blurbs, but that she wished me and the book well. That quiet blessing was enough.

 

Each writer tells a story of a changing culture, of changing attitudes toward women, and their influence can be found everywhere. Not content to let stereotypes dictate the female experience on the page, Babitz opened her lingerie drawer so that I could write, and write about the Lolitas of page and screen on my own terms. Didion’s contribution to the world of letters is indisputable. Having helped usher in what was then called New Journalism, and has now become the Long Form status quo. That fact that we readers are so accustomed to the style of writing Didion helped pioneer speaks volumes to the force of her talent. Disaffected heroines outside in the pool chaise, plotting and painting their toenails; whip-smart journalist driving full-speed through a headlit Mojave, cigarette hanging from a pair of red lips, a soft pack and hardboiled egg by their side. Restless women in the sunshine, with time aplenty. A sports car and a highway out of town, and always coming home; circling.

¤

Nikki Darling holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from USC. Her debut novel, Fade Into You, was published by Feminist Press in 2018, and is currently being adapted into a scripted series. She is completing her second book, The Call Is Coming From Inside the House. She lives in L.A. with her cat, small dog, and partner.